"Sometimes developers need to break open the dam and let the content deluge pour downstream..."
When Guild Wars 2 originally launched 3 years ago, it was highly touted as the MMORPG that broke the previous mold of MMORPGs. It offered horizontal gear progression instead of vertical progression, no holy trinity system, a constantly changing living world, an interesting action-based combat system, no subscription fee, and no way to buy power from the cash shop. Essentially, you bought the game once, and all content was yours to enjoy at your own leisure. However, a lot of the game's fan base still felt that there was a lot missing in the game that was promised by ArenaNet. As the game matured, ArenaNet made good on a lot of their promises that they didn't get to at release. In doing so, they forwent the traditional MMO expansion route, and instead released what they called Living World updates. The Living World updates expanded on the original game's story and added some great content into the game. Both Living World seasons, however, were released at a weird pacing, and each update didn't pack a lot of content. This wasn't helped by the fact that there was a large downtime between seasons. A trickling stream of content is sometimes not the best way to appease your average MMO player, as they devour content faster than it can ever be released. Sometimes developers need to break open the dam and let the content deluge pour downstream. ArenaNet has done just this with their first expansion for Guild Wars 2, Heart of Thorns.
Like most MMO expansions, Heart of Thorns brings a lot of new and interesting changes to the framework of Guild Wars 2. The first noticeable change to the core game is the inclusion of elite specializations. Each class has received one new elite specialization that changes the way the class is played, but at the same time keeps it very familiar. To use the new elite specialization, you simply equip it as one of your 3 trait lines, pump in some hero points (previously called skill points) to unlock its traits and skills, and pick and choose your new traits. Equipping the specialization will also allow you to use one new specific weapon for that class. After 3 years of playing with the same weapons and basically the same traits on each class, the implementation of new weapons and trait lines is a great change of pace. The drawback is that some classes' specializations are truly unique and powerful, while some feel very lackluster. The Necromancer's new elite specialization "Reaper," for example, gives the class access to the use of great swords that include 5 new weapon skills, 4 new shout skills, and turns their unique F1 ability from Death Shroud into Reaper Shroud, further enhancing the power of the specialization. In comparison, the new Warrior specialization "Berserker" gives them an off-hand torch, 4 new Rage skills, and changes their adrenaline skills into burst abilities. The problem lies in the fact that the trait line for the Berserker isn't very good, the burst abilities are weak, and the off-hand torch only gives two new abilities that aren't very good either. The specialization just doesn't synergize with the class very well. Thankfully, this is an MMO, and balance changes are sure to follow in the near future to hopefully rectify these imbalances. In general, the specializations are a great addition to the game, and they add a breath of fresh air to a part of the game that was getting kind of stale. The introduction of the specializations also leads to the possibility for new specializations in the future, allowing players to look forward to a great number of ways to customize their characters and play styles.
Speaking of classes, a new class named the Revenant has been added with Heart of Thorns. The Revenant is the third heavy armor class added to the game, and it plays a bit differently from the other classes. For most classes, you choose a healing skill, 3 utility skills, and an elite skill before going into battle. These choices are one of the most important parts of setting up your character, and will make or break you in the heat of battle. The Revenant lacks this function. Instead, they allow the player to choose 2 legendary stances that they can freely swap between during battle. Each stance determines which healing, utility, and elite skills you get to use. Each stance has its pros and cons, and choosing which two suit your play style and which ones synergize well with your trait selection is the start to mastering the class. Fans of the original Guild Wars will appreciate the names of the stances, as they are named after prominent Guild Wars Mist legends Shiro Tagachi, Ventari, Mallyx the Unyielding, Jalis Ironhammer, and the dragon Glint. Revenant players must also must master a regenerating resource called Energy. Previously, the only class with resource management was the Thief, but while the Thieves only had to manage their resource Initiative, Revenants must also manage their cooldown timers. Careful management of these two is crucial for gameplay, and failing to do so can leave your character with their face in the floor pretty fast. In the end, the Revenant is a much-needed heavy armor class in Guild Wars 2, and with its weird new playstyle, it adds a lot to the already robust combat system of Guild Wars 2.
Outside of class changes, one of the other highly requested additions from fans were some new maps to explore, and Heart of Thorns has got some fantastic new maps. Exploration in Guild Wars 2 has always been a phenomenal experience with large landscapes, tons of events to participate in, and beautiful scenery to behold. Unfortunately, since the game's release, only 3 new maps have been added: Southsun Cove, Dry Top, and the Silverwastes. These maps, especially Southsun Cove, were not really up to the quality of the rest of the zones, and often left players wanting more. In contrast, ArenaNet has really outdone themselves in Heart of Thorns when it comes to map design. The 4 new maps in Heart of Thorns are huge, expansive areas with tons of activities. The 4 new maps making up the new Maguuma Jungle area include Verdant Brink, the Auric Basin, the Tangled Depths, and the Dragon's Stand. What really makes them stand out, though, is the verticality of the maps. No longer are maps bound to one terrain, as you soon find that the Maguuma Jungle is designed much like a real jungle, with each map having a canopy area, a ground floor, and a subterranean floor. These maps are incredibly dangerous, and traversing the Maguuma jungle without understanding the nuances of it can often get you into trouble. To make this easier for players, the first thing you are introduced to as you enter the expansion areas is the new type of leveling progression called Masteries. Masteries are small upgrades that you unlock as you gain experience points and allow you to interact more with the environment in the new zones. The first of these Masteries, and the coolest of them all, is the glider. The glider allows players to jump off any ledge in the game, and with a quick tap of the jump button, deploy their glider to safely glide to another destination. The glider is a fantastic tool that expands upon your ability to explore the map, but that is just the tip of the iceberg. As you continue to unlock the rest of the glider levels along with the levels in the Itzel, Exalted, and Nuhoch Lore masteries, you'll soon be bouncing off huge overgrown mushrooms, riding around in giant armors, and using updrafts on your glider to soar to amazing heights to take on some legendary enemies. It really opens up the maps and expands on what can be done on them. It makes them feel very alive and fun to explore.
I can't talk about the maps and the masteries in Heart of Thorns without touching on the story. Unfortunately, Heart of Thorns really misses the mark in terms of storytelling. Yes, this is an MMO and story shouldn't matter as much, but Guild Wars 2 and a lot of new MMOs have been putting emphasis on story as major selling points of their games. Not only story, but game lore is a huge basis for great world creating, as well as setting the tone of an MMO.
I am going to avoid spoilers for Heart of Thorns, but there will be spoilers for vanilla Guild Wars 2, Living World season 1, and Living World season 2 to follow, so please skip the following paragraph if you haven't had a chance to play though these yet. Starting from the beginning, Guild Wars 2 has had its ups and downs with story. The personal story had great characters and set itself up for something epic, but as you progressed, the story felt less and less about your character and more and more about the character Trahearne. It ended in a very lackluster story instance in the city of Arah with a very boring boss battle (if you can even call it one) against the elder dragon Zhaitan. A very ho-hum start, but ArenaNet promised more in its future content releases. When Living World season 1 came around, it started very slowly, introducing us to a few new characters, and had your character deal with a very one-dimensional antagonist in Scarlet Briar. However, it ended fantastically with the destruction of Lions Arch, the central hub city of the game. Living Story season 2 had you cleaning up the mess left by Scarlet as you explored into the Maguuma Wastes, as well as learning about the awakening of the elder dragon Mordremoth. It was basically a set up the Heart of Thorns, and it left a lot of questions to be answered in the expansion.
Unfortunately, Heart of Thorns kind of drops the ball. First off, the expansion has very few story missions, almost the same amount of story missions that were in Living World season 2, which was free content. Seeing as this is an expansion, and not another free content update, I expected more, especially since the vanilla Guild Wars 2 storyline had a lot of missions with branching stories. In addition, the ending leaves a lot to be desired. It happens so abruptly that it almost feels like there is no ending at all. The first thing I said to myself as it finished was "Is that it?" I had to ask my fellow guild mates if there was something I was missing, and unfortunately I wasn't. I can understand the need to leave the ending open for future plot points, but this is the ending to a major story arc that has been shaping up for over 2 years, since the start of Living World season 1. Under the circumstances, such a swift ending feels inexcusable. Thankfully, at least the final boss battle is an actual battle this time. The story could have been better on both of these fronts, and I hope the next story in the Guild Wars 2 universe is better.
Moving on, as Trehearne would say, you can't talk about Guild Wars 2 without talking about PvP. Some will disagree, but I feel that at its core, Guild Wars 2 is more of a PvP-focused game. Class balance is heavily configured in favor of PvP, and tournaments for the game are held often. Heart of Thorns adds a lot for PvP, including a whole new mode for structured PvP and new maps for World versus World. Previously, the only mode in 5v5 structured PvP was a conquest style mode. In this mode, your party controlled points on the map and each map had a special conditions to help your team win. The new mode ,"Stronghold," is a mix between normal Guild Wars 2 PvP and your traditional MOBA lane-based gameplay. You spawn NPC minions that travel down your lane to take objectives while duking it out with the opposing team and their minions. Smart use of your team's minions and champions (larger, more powerful minions), along with some player skill goes a long way to winning a match of Stronghold. I found that while Stronghold may not hold the competitive edge of Conquest mode, it certainly is a fun and interesting mode that has a lot of potential as more maps are created for it.
As for World vs. World, Guild Wars 2 large scale PvP, it also has received a big change. Gone for now are the traditional borderlands maps that launched with the game, and in its stead have been replaced with the new Desert Borderland maps. The desert borderland maps are a huge step forward for this part of the game. Without getting into the finer details, World vs. World in the end almost always came down to a numbers game. The server with the most players at the end of the day would win. It made defending and fortifying objectives such as towers and winning or losing the battle dependent on the time of day. Thankfully, the desert borderlands comes with numerous ways for small defense teams to defend keeps and towers against large attacking zergs. It drastically shifts the balance of power and makes a lot more sense than the previous World vs. World maps. The new maps really breathe a lot of fresh air into a mode that has been getting very stale for the last 3 years. I hope they build on these maps and keep balancing them as needed, because World vs. World is some of the most fun you can have in Guild Wars 2.
The last big addition to come out of Heart of Thorns are the new end game PvE raids. One of the most annoying things about the vanilla Guild Wars 2 was the lack of end game PvE content. Dungeons are for the most part very easy, and even though open world content is where the game really shines, it can mostly be zerged down with a large number of people. When you take away the holy trinity and don't have much vertical progression, it's very hard to have difficult PvE content. Fortunately, Heart of Thorns rectifies this in their new raids. As of the date of this review, only one raid for the game has been released: the Spirit Vale. The raid is rather straightforward, but it is a ton of fun and very difficult compared to most of the other PvE content in the game. Without a trinity, the raid relies on players doing mechanics in tandem to accomplish victory. It has me waiting patiently for more of the raids and bosses, because I can see the potential very clearly even in the first wing of this raid. Hopefully, it builds into something really amazing.
Guild Wars 2: Heart of Thorns is a fantastic addition to already fun and enjoyable MMO. If you're a fan of the vanilla game you'll most certainly enjoy Heart of Thorns. It may have taken a while to get here, but it was worth the wait. For those of you who haven't played Guild Wars 2 yet, make sure to check it out, as the base game is now 100% free to play, and then check out Heart of Thorns when you get a chance.